Repressed memories

Other Names:
Suppressed memories of abuse

Repressed memory is a controversial, and largely scientifically discredited, psychiatric phenomenon which involves an inability to recall autobiographical information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature. The concept originated in psychoanalytic theory where repression is understood as a defense mechanism that excludes painful experiences and unacceptable impulses from consciousness. Repressed memory is presently considered largely unsupported by research. Sigmund Freud initially claimed the memories of historical childhood trauma could be repressed, while unconsciously influencing present behavior and emotional responding; he later revised this belief.

While the concept of repressed memories persisted through much of the '90s, insufficient support exists to conclude that memories can become inconspicuously hidden in a way that is distinct from forgetting. Historically, some psychoanalysts provided therapy based on the belief that alleged repressed memories could be recovered, however, rather than promoting the recovery of a real repressed memory, such attempts could result in the creation of entirely false memories. Subsequent accusations based on such "recovered memories" led to substantial harm of individuals implicated as perpetrators, sometimes resulting in false convictions and years of incarceration.

Due to a lack of evidence for the concept of repressed and recovered memories, mainstream clinical psychologists have stopped using these terms. Clinical psychologist Richard McNally stated: "The notion that traumatic events can be repressed and later recovered is the most pernicious bit of folklore ever to infect psychology and psychiatry. It has provided the theoretical basis for 'recovered memory therapy'—the worst catastrophe to befall the mental health field since the lobotomy era."

One study demonstrated of 100 women with a documented medical history of child abuse as children showed that 38% were unable to recall that abuse 17 years later. In the USA in 1993 it was reported that millions of dollars in insurance payments was underwriting years of therapy for thousands of patients who claim to have recovered memories of childhood abuse. The therapy may have been sought for other purposes supposedly quite unrelated to past abuse. Such recovery was virtually non-existent in the 1970s and is having a profound effect on the legal system. The statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse has been withdrawn in many states in the USA leading to criminal charges with awards up to $5 million.
Problem Type:
F: Fuzzy exceptional problems
Date of last update
04.10.2020 – 22:48 CEST